February is the month of love- not just because of Valentine's day, but also because it is American Heart Month! Being mindful of our heart health is really an important DAILY practice, but this month is a great opportunity to raise awareness on why we should care to. Your heart is the powerhouse of your circulatory system, pumping blood through your entire body to deliver oxygen to keep all your cells alive and functioning properly. For this reason among so many others, it is crucial to take care of our hearts when working to achieve or maintain whole body health.
The World Health Organization (WHO) consistently reports that cardiovascular incidents and conditions are in the top causes of mortality and morbidity for adults in the US. Having worked as an intern in an outpatient cardiovascular rehab program, I always like to stress that cardiovascular incidents bring on much greater burden than meets the eye. Depression is a common symptom post event for those having experienced a heart attack or heart scare. The amount of follow up care necessary with several health care providers, medications, and so on is also underestimated. All of this takes a toll not only on the individual, but the family and loved ones as well.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), uncontrolled high blood pressure is the number one contributor to cardiovascular incidents such as stroke or heart disease. While knowing these facts are important to awareness, they often are not motivating enough to lead to effective behavior change. An overload of information can also overwhelm or turn people away altogether. So I like to keep it simple, and always holistic. Below are steps to take for showing your heart some love. Whether you can try them all or only a few, creating small changes are better than creating none. And most importantly, they can positively impact your heart for the long run.
1. Choose heart-healthy foods: You know as a dietitian I am going to mention information about eating habits. But rather than telling you to cut out foods, I will tell you to add more of the things that are good for your heart. Heart healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seed, legumes, and olive oil. Foods naturally rich in fiber are your heart's best friend. Prioritizing and adding these kinds of foods into our meal and snack times helps us naturally decrease intake of foods that may be less nutrient dense for our hearts- without going on a diet. For those with pre-existing heart conditions, nutrition recommendations are more specialized. Working with a registered dietitian will help in navigating your dietary choices.
One of my favorite recipe blogs out there is Cookie and Kate. Find heart healthy recipes for all meals, sides, snacks, desserts and more here:
2. Get moving: there is no denying that exercise is linked by science to heart health. You do not need to be a marathon runner or supreme athlete to have a healthy heart. Effective exercise ranges across various forms of activities, for all different fitness levels. Find an enjoyable form of movement that not only fulfills you but is realistic to your lifestyle so that you will actually stick with it. Ditch the all or nothing attitude that the only options are spending hours in the gym or none at all. There are also plenty of ways to get in movement without a gym or any equipment. Start small and build momentum, discover what works for you, and focus on consistency, not perfection. If staying motivated is a challenge for you, find a workout buddy or another individual to help keep you accountable.
Read more on tips on exercising for a strong, healthy heart here:
3. Sleep: those people that glamorize functioning on 2 hours of sleep? Don't buy in. Poor sleep has been shown to take a toll on our hearts, especially when chronic and consistent. It has been associated with conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease, among many others. If you do have a hard time with sleep, some controllable tips to help improve this include avoiding caffeine intake after the morning time, working to find a consistent time or schedule to go to sleep, being mindful of overall diet quality, and staying active.
Find more tips for improving sleep quality here:
4. Breath and be grateful: Research has linked mindful behaviors like meditation and practicing gratitude with decreased inflammation and decreased chronic disease. Keeping a journal is always a great option, but if you are not one for this, taking time on a regular basis to breath deeply and count your blessings can go a long way. Assessing your food diet is crucial in taking care of your heart, but assessing your “emotional diet” is just as important. Regularly practicing gratitude is associated with more energy, optimism, resilience in times of stress, compassion, fulfillment in life and much more. These qualities are vital in a happy and healthy longevity.
For a beginner's how-to on meditation, click here:
Last and certainly not least- stress has one of the biggest impact's on not just our heart health, but our whole body health. Stress build up inevitably manifests as physical symptoms- including those directly impacting the heart like increased heart rate or blood pressure. Not coincidentally, the tips discussed that aim to improve cardiovascular health are also stress-relieving behaviors or activities. Funny how everything ties together, huh?
What steps do you want to take this month for your heart health? Share them with me, and offer your tips to help others!
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